The Night That Paved the Way for the Holocaust

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In 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Nazi Germany. Almost immediately, he began to implement legal actions against German Jews, depriving them of their civic, economic and human rights as Germans. Five years later, a series of events led to a turning point in Nazi anti-Jewish policy which eventually culminated in the systematic, state-sponsored mass murder of 6 million Jews. 

WWI and the Versailles Treaty

World War I (WWI) was the deadliest conflict in history with over 9 million soldiers killed. The 1919 Versailles Treaty ending the war was written by the Allies with no participation from Germany. The treaty included 700 directives that Germany could not change. Germany had to accept total defeat and total responsibility for starting the war, and they had to pay billions in reparations.  Germany was forced to give up 13 percent of its territory and 6 million inhabitants to France, Belgium and Poland. Germany was also severely restricted in rebuilding and establishing its military force.

Resentment and anger grew among many Germans who felt humiliated, confused, alienated and betrayed. They believed they had been stabbed in the back by Communists, Socialists and Jews. Many were drawn to political parties that wanted to regain lost territory, rearm and expand the army, oppose Communism and return to a state of primacy.

Kristallnacht gave Hitler and the Nazis a green light to proceed with their plans to murder all the Jews living in Europe.

The Nazi Party

Among these parties was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, or Nazi Party, headed by Adolf Hitler. Their mission was to right the wrongs done to Germany after WWI, punish those responsible, annihilate the Marxist world view, return to traditional values and restore national pride. In the 1932 parliamentary elections, the Nazi Party received only 37 percent of the vote. But because that figure was the largest number of votes for any party, it compelled the President to appoint Hitler as Chancellor.

Defying the Versailles Treaty

Hitler defied the Versailles Treaty by rearming and expanding his army. In 1936, he defied the Versailles Treaty again and invaded the Rhineland. He told his troops to withdraw without fighting if they met any resistance from the French or British armies who were better trained and equipped. To avoid another devastating war, neither country risked opposing Germany. Two years later, Hitler annexed Austria where he was welcomed with open arms.

In July 1938, the Evian Conference convened to address the growing plight of Germany’s 500,000 Jews who were becoming outcasts in German society. Of the 32 countries present, only 1, the Dominican Republic, agreed to accept some Jewish refugees. A few months later, Great Britain and France agreed that Germany could occupy the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia without interference.  All of this showed Hitler that his previous enemies would not resist German aggression, instead favoring appeasement over war, and that they also seemed to not care about the plight of the Jews. All he needed now was an “excuse” to initiate more aggressive actions against the Jews.

Precursors to Kristallnacht

That excuse came following the November 7 assassination of a German embassy official in Paris by 17-year-old Herschel Grynszpan. Herschel’s parents had been expelled from Germany back to Poland, but Poland refused them entry and they became stranded in a refugee settlement on the border. They wrote to Herschel asking him to help them leave Germany, but after not getting any help from the German embassy, Herschel became angry enough to shoot the official, who died two days later. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, called it a conspiratorial attack by “International Jewry” against the Reich and, symbolically, against the Fuehrer himself.

On November 8, the Gestapo received the following orders:

Actions against Jews, especially against their synagogues, will take place throughout the Reich shortly. They are not to be interfered with. Only such measures should be taken as will not endanger German life or property (i.e. synagogue burning only if there is no fire-danger to the surroundings). Businesses and dwellings of Jews should only be destroyed, not plundered. Preparations are to be made for the arrest of about 20,000 to 30,000 Jews.


This series of actions became known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass. It was a wave of violent anti-Jewish carnage which took place throughout Germany and the newly acquired territories in Austria and the Sudetenland on November 9-10, 1938. The name “Kristallnacht” refers to the shards of shattered glass that lined German streets in the wake of the carnage—broken glass from the windows of thousands of synagogues, homes and Jewish-owned businesses that were plundered and destroyed during the violence. Thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps, marking the first instance in which the Nazi regime incarcerated Jews on a massive scale simply on the basis of their ethnicity.

On November 12, Hermann Goering, Hitler’s designated successor, announced. “I have received a letter written on the Fuehrer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another.”

In the weeks that followed, the German government promulgated dozens of laws and decrees designed to deprive Jews of their property and means of livelihood. Ensuing legislation barred Jews, already ineligible for employment in the public sector, from practicing most professions in the private sector. Jewish children were expelled from German schools. German Jews lost their right to hold a driver’s license or own an automobile. Legislation restricted access to public transport. Jews could no longer gain admittance to “German” theaters, movie cinemas or concert halls.

In the United States, expressions of sympathy for the plight of the Jews were not matched by deeds. The U.S. did not impose economic sanctions against Nazi Germany, sever diplomatic relations or change in immigration policy to admit more Jews. The Nazis suffered no serious consequences as a result of their actions

Kristallnacht symbolized the final shattering of Jewish existence in Germany, as the Nazi regime expanded and radicalized measures aimed at removing Jews entirely from German economic and social life in the forthcoming years. The passivity of the German people showed that the Nazis would encounter little opposition—even from the German churches.

With such minimal opposition, and no serious consequences for their actions, the Nazis felt they could now do what they wanted with the Jews. Kristallnacht gave Hitler and the Nazis a green light to proceed with their plans to murder all the Jews living in Europe. Within a year, Hitler invaded Poland and started World War II.

Our choices in response to hatred truly do matter.

Why Kristallnacht Is Important

Eighty years ago, momentous changes were occurring in Central Europe. Few understood the historic significance of the times, and fewer still saw these events as precursors to what would become one of humanity’s darkest hours.

Territorial expansion, disregard for international law, persecution of people based on their identity — these were all signs of impending war and the Holocaust.  Looking back, those events are undoubtedly clearer today than they were then. Although newspapers around the world reported on the events of Kristallnacht, very few nations, individuals or groups chose to help. Nonetheless, opportunities for international intervention existed and could have saved many lives.  Why did so many countries and individuals fail to respond to the warning signs? And what can we learn from this?

As we reflect on these questions, we remember all whose lives were lost or forever altered by the Holocaust, including my parents, their family members and other relatives. And we are challenged to think about what might motivate us to respond to warning signs of genocide today. History teaches us that genocide can be prevented if enough people care enough to act. As Edmund Burke said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Reverend Martin Niemöller, a pastor in the German Confessing Church who spent seven years in a concentration camp stated the following:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the labor leaders, and I did not speak out because I was not a labor leader. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

The Holocaust did not start with gas chambers. It started with politicians dividing the people into “us” vs. “them.” It started with intolerance and hate speech. It continued when people stopped caring, became desensitized and turned a blind eye. Our choices in response to hatred truly do matter. If we are sincere when we pledge “liberty and justice for all” and truly believe in and practice the Golden Rule, we can help fulfill the promise of “Never Again.”

Sheldon “Shelly” Bleiweiss is a son of Holocaust survivors, a liberal Reform Jew and a Holocaust educator. To commemorate the 80th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Mr. Bleiweiss will come to the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture at Southeastern Seminary on November 8, 2018 at 7:15 pm for an interactive talk about Kristallnacht.

Image credit: Creationswap

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Sheldon "Shelly" Bleiweiss

Shelly Bleiweiss is a child of 2 Polish Jewish Holocaust Survivors. He is a member of the North Carolina Council on the Holocaust and the North Carolina Holocaust Speakers Bureau. A Holocaust educator for over 18 years, Shelly has spoken to teachers, hundreds of school children, and numerous civic/church/community groups. He currently teaches a Holocaust course for senior adult learners in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at Duke and North Carolina Sate Universities.

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